Unfortunately, eating a soy-free diet is much more than saying sayonara to fried tofu and soy sauce over rice. Soy has the frustrating ability to crop up in the most unsuspecting of places, so whether it’s for you or your child, you have to remain diligent.
Part of making that process easier on yourself is understanding what and why soy resides in typical foods. Then, you can take that information, cut out the obvious soy threats, and identify the foods you know are usually safe — meaning all you have to do at that point is to build up a bank of brands and products that you’ve checked the labels for.
What is soy?
Soy (a.k.a. soybeans) is a legume, so the same family as peas, chickpeas, etc. Legumes are known for producing “dry fruit”, or pods. So anything that you can split along the seam, really [*].
Other widespread legumes include:
Soy-free does not mean being legume-free, by the way. You only have to worry about soy. The rest of these delicious legumes are on the table!
Soy is most commonly eaten in Eastern countries, most notably Japan. It’s also used a lot when raising cattle and poultry, which we’ll get into a bit later.
Foods to completely avoid on a soy-free diet
We’re going to start with the nos. Whatever you do, do not eat these foods — they are chock full of soy [*]:
- Soy sauce
- Any type of tofu
- All soy milk or other dairy imitations
- Soy oil that isn’t highly refined
- Any sort of soy proteins
- Teriyaki sauce
One mental trick that you may have noticed is the prominence of soy in Asian cuisine and products. Start by eliminating most of those foods/sauces and be particularly diligent when eating Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other Eastern foods.
What to keep an eye on while eating soy-free
Here are a few strategies for building your internal soy detector, so keep these broader categories in mind when eating. The idea is to know when to be extra cautious.
Again — if you ever eat out, buy frozen meals, or literally anything that is labeled as “Asian”, you should be extra alert. It’s found in so much of Eastern food, so keep a close eye on those labels.
This goes for food that should be soy-free in restaurants as well since cross-contamination is a possibility within the kitchen. When in doubt, skip it — especially if you or your child are highly allergic.
Things labeled “vegetable”
Soy often gets lumped into the generic label of “vegetable” since it’s so popular. Common culprits to watch out for include:
- Vegetable oil (including sprays)
- Vegetable gum
- Vegetable broth
- Vegetable starch
Protein bars and snacks
Since soy is a good source of protein and is generally low-calorie/fat, it’s a popular addition to health products. So anything that is lower in sugar but super high in protein probably deserves a closer look.
Baby food and formulas
For similar reasons, soy is very popular in food and formulas. Since children under 5 are most commonly allergic to soy, you always need to check the labels when trying a new food or formula. And make sure your friends and babysitters know as well!
Additives, flavorings, and preservatives
Ingredients like these are usually product specific, but it’s at least worth knowing what types of categories of additives, etc. can contain soy [*].
- Vitamin E
- Natural flavorings
- Vegetable broth, gum, and starches (also fit into the misc. category)
- Citric Acid
- Liquid Smoke
Soy in disguise
Keep an eye out for these products. Either they contain soy or are essentially always coupled with it [*].
- Glycine max
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Less common culprits
These don’t happen as often, but they are still worth checking on:
- Canned fish and meat
- Cookies and other baked goods
- Peanut butter
- Worcestershire sauce and other steak sauces.
Foods not covered by the FDA
When traveling outside of the country, take extra precautions when eating. Only eat what you know is soy-free, and perform careful research to make sure you can trust what you’re eating.
Regulations and strategies to help
Companies are required to notify consumers of soy in packaged goods.
Fortunately, there are some regulations that make eating a soy-free diet easier. Since soy is one of the top eight allergies found in the U.S., it’s covered by the FDA in what’s known as the Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act.
Soy has to be clearly shown in the ingredients on almost all packaged goods. This statement is usually found inside the ingredients list or at the end beginning with, “Contains:” [*].
This is super helpful for those murkier ingredients like broth or sauces. If it has soy, they are required to label it.
Highly refined soy oil and lecithin are still edible with a soy allergen.
You won’t come across this as often, but if you find some formulas or foods are specifically labeled as “highly refined”, then you or your child should be okay. Note that this does not include soy that has been cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, or extruded soybean oil [*].
Buy meats and other staples in bulk to have trustworthy options on hand.
This goes for most diets, but it’s especially important for more restrictive diets like soy-free. By keeping a bunch of canned foods, frozen meats, and reliable vegetables around, you can always ensure that you have something quick and delicious on hand. This dramatically reduces your mental load and also helps you be more creative in the kitchen!
We have two amazing soy-free options that you can buy in bulk — they are a great way to tackle this diet.
- Soy-free chicken – sustainably raised, free-range, and GMO-free. It’s great to have around the house for easy chicken and veggie or rice dinners.
- Soy-free pork – non-GMO pasture-raised Heirloom Pork from sustainable family farms. It’s so hard to find soy-free pork, so we are very excited to have to provide this option!
Soy-free foods to enjoy
And to reiterate, just because these foods are usually soy-free does not mean you shouldn’t check them! Always begin by checking, and then eventually you’ll build up a bank of soy-free products and brands you know are trustworthy.
- Whole-grain bread products
- Soy-free chicken
- Soy-free pork
- Legumes (excluding soy itself)
- Enriched grains
- Sweets (that don’t contain any soy additives)
- Almond Flour
- Coconut milk
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Frozen vegetables and fruits
- Most nuts
- Seitan and other wheat-based meat alternatives
Hopefully, this list gets you a bit more excited about all the culinary options available in the soy-free diet. There are still so many delicious dishes and foods you can eat! If you need a bit more inspiration, here’s a database of soy-free recipes you can search.
Wishing you luck on your soy-free journey
Eating soy-free is definitely not the easiest diet to follow, but by remaining diligent and outlining foods you can typically rely on, you’ll reduce the cognitive load required when eating out.
It’s most important to keep a close eye on labels and food choices when eating out and branching out of your typical product comfort zone.
Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.